May 3, 2023
Asian American and Pacific Islander (AAPI) Heritage Month is a time to highlight the significant role of LGBTQ+ people in the AAPI community and to reflect on the progress made as well as the work that remains to be done in advocating for equality and inclusivity. Join us as we explore the diverse identities and narratives of LGBTQ+ people of Asian and Pacific Island descent and celebrate their remarkable journeys during this month of recognition and appreciation.
Nellie Wong, Kitty Tsui, Merle Woo, and the Unbound Feet
Born into the
skin of yellow women
we are born
into the armor of warriors.
– Kitty Tsui- Tsui, K. (1989). Chinatown Talking Story. In Making Waves: An Anthology of Writings by and about Asian American Women.
Art has always been crucial in the fight for LGBTQ+ rights, as Nellie Wong, Kitty Tsui, and Merle Woo demonstrated. Kitty Tsui was born in Hong Kong, Nellie Wong was born in Oakland to Chinese immigrant parents, and Merle Woo was born in SanFrancisco to Chinese and Korean parents. These three formed the feminist performance group Unbound Feet in 1979. The group gave Asian American and LGBTQ-identifying people a safe space to share, support one another, and connect.
Because of their work, during this time in San Francisco’s Chinatown, queer women of Chinese ancestry began to metaphorically “unbind” their feet. This marked a pivotal shift towards self-discovery, empowerment, and liberation.
Unbound Feet’s work culminated in participating in the first National Third World Lesbian and Gay Conference held in Washington, D.C. in 1979. Their groundbreaking efforts in raising awareness, promoting inclusivity, and advocating for LGBTQ+ rights have left a lasting legacy, inspiring and empowering queer Asians in their fight for visibility, acceptance, and equality.
Alok Vaid-Menon is a performance artist, writer, and advocate who has spoken out about the intersection of their identities as a gender non-conforming person and a person of South Asian descent. Alok is vocal about the unique challenges and discrimination that LGBTQ+ people who are also part of marginalized racial and ethnic communities face. They have advocated for intersectional approaches to social justice and activism.
As a performance artist, Alok uses their art and creativity to challenge societal norms and expectations around gender and identity. They have performed on stages, in galleries, and on social media using fashion, poetry, and other art forms to express their gender identity and promote self-acceptance and self-expression for others. They are the author of Femme in Public (2017), Beyond the Gender Binary (2020), and Your Wound/My Garden (2021); they are also the creator of #DeGenderFashion, a social media-led initiative to degender fashion and beauty industries.
In recognition of their work, Alok has been honored as the inaugural LGBTQ Scholar in Residence at the University of Pennsylvania and awarded a GLAAD Media Award and Stonewall Foundation Visionary Award.
Learning hula and Hawaiian music at a young age under the guidance of her mother, Kekuhi Kanahele, and her grandmother, the late Edith Kanaka’ole, Kaumakiwa Kanaka’ole is a renowned Hawaiian musician, hula dancer, and cultural practitioner. Kaumakaiwa creates some of the most original work to emerge in contemporary Hawaiian music, drawing from ancestral memory, hula practice, and melodic chants. Kaumakaiwa seamlessly melds Hawaiian culture and modern sensibilities in compelling music.
In addition to her music and dance work, Kaumakiwa is also a cultural practitioner and advocate for preserving Hawaiian culture. She has worked to promote Hawaiian language and traditional practices and has been involved in efforts to protect Hawaiian land and natural resources.
Kaumakiwa said, “The trans community has always been [in Hawaii]. The third gender is not an uncommon theme in most indigenous and aboriginal cultures. Polynesia is no exception, particularly in Hawaii. Ancient indigenous people embrace all facets and mediums of gender while still trying to balance the juxtaposition of colonialism or Western religious oppression.”
In 1965, eight women met secretly to form the Daughters of Bilitis. This group aimed to provide support, advocacy, and community for lesbians at a time when homosexuality was highly stigmatized and illegal in many parts of the United States. The organization held social events, published a monthly magazine called “The Ladder,” and engaged in activism to promote lesbian rights and visibility.
Interested in a safe space to dance and meet new people, Filipina Rose Bamberger and her wife, Rosemary Sliepen, hosted a meeting that formally became the Daughters of Bilitis. Bamberger played a crucial role in gathering a handful of women, including Del Martin and Phyllis Lyon, who would later become known as the founders. Despite not being a member for long, her contribution to the organization was forever recognized.
Bamberger had valid concerns about protecting herself due to the potential ramifications that could stem from public knowledge of her sexuality. She experienced frequent job changes during the 1950s, working as a machine operator, brush maker, or factory worker, forcing her to change residences at least five times. Like so many women in her time, Bamberger feared the consequences of coming out and vowed to create a safe space for women of all alike. Rose Bamberger was a founder of Daughters of Bilitis though she didn’t stay in the group long. She is one of many women of color involved in the LGBTQ+ rights movement but has been overlooked or erased from this history.
Christopher Lee is an American LGBTQ+ and HIV/AIDS activist. He is best known for his work in advocacy, education, and community organizing related to LGBTQ+ rights, HIV/AIDS awareness, and social justice issues. Chris Lee was an outspoken advocate for LGBTQ+ rights within communities of color.
Christopher Lee was instrumental in the passing of the “Respect After Death Act,” also known as AB 1577, in California in 2014. The Respect After Death Act requires that death certificates accurately reflect a person’s gender identity if it is different from the sex that was originally listed on the birth certificate. The passing of this act helps ensure the dignity and identity of transgender and gender non-conforming folks are respected after their death. Christopher Lee was a prominent advocate for this legislation and worked with California state lawmakers to help bring it to fruition.
As the co-founder of Asian Pacific Lesbian & Gays, the first formal organization created to meet the specific needs of queer Asian Americans and Pacific Islanders in the U.S. Takenori “Tak” Yamamoto was a significant figure in LGBTQ+ history.
Growing up in a large family, Yamamoto was among the 120,000 Americans of Japanese ancestry who were forcibly removed from the West Coast due to President Franklin D. Roosevelt’s signing of Executive Order 9066 on February 19, 1942. Yamamoto’s family was sent to Poston, Arizona, one of ten American concentration camps where Japanese Americans were incarcerated during World War II. His family spent three years in the Arizona desert behind barbed wire. After the war, Yamamoto left Poston and returned to Los Angeles. After completing high school, he joined the United States Army and served in Germany.
He was the first openly gay president of any chapter of the Japanese American Citizens League (JACL), a national organization dedicated to promoting and preserving Japanese American heritage and civil rights. His election to this position in the Seattle chapter of the JACL in 1985 was a significant milestone for LGBTQ+ representation in the Japanese American community.
Amao Leota Lu
Amao Leota Lu was born in 1971 in Auckland, New Zealand. She then immigrated with some of her Samoan diaspora family to Sydney in the 1980s. Through traveling in her early twenties, she came to terms with her gender identity as a woman and a fa’afafine. Faʻafafine have a third gender or non-binary role in Samoa, American Samoa, and the Samoan diaspora. She uses performances to advocate for fa’afafine identity, particularly in Western LGBTQ+ spaces. These performances combine the ideas of gender identity and Pacific culture.
As the very first queer Pacific event at Midsumma Festival in Melbourne, she performed a piece entitled Pacific Essence: Tales of a Migrant Plantation, which was staged at the Immigration Museum.
Her performances are part of a “cult phenomenon” where queer perspectives are combined with “Indigenous knowledge-making.” Leota Lu is also outspoken about the discrimination that gender-diverse members of Pacific Islander communities still face. Former occupations have included community support workers.
Trung le Nguyen
Trung le Nguyen, a.k.a. @Trungles, is a graphic novelist and illustrator.
Trung was born in a refugee camp in the Philippine province of Palawan and raised in Minnesota. He started making comics in middle school but stopped doing it in college. In 2012, he earned a bachelor’s degree in studio art with a minor in art history from Hamline University.
The use of traditional inking and penciling, as well as references to Vietnamese imagery, shojo manga, and well-known children’s literature, distinguish Trung’s work. He lists Harry Clarke, Heinrich Lefler, and Rose O’Neill as influences. The Magic Fish, Trung’s debut original graphic novel, was released on October 13, 2020, by Random House Graphic, a Penguin Random House brand.
Trung has received two Harvey Awards, a Romics (Italy), a prize from Angoulême (France), a GLAAD nomination, and an Eisner nomination.
In addition to the folks we highlighted, Amy Sueyoshi describes the contributions AAPI LGBTQ+ folks have made throughout history in Breathing Fire: Remembering Asian Pacific American Activism in Queer History.